To the Moon! Research Says U.S. Public Wants Government Leadership Akin To The Apollo Missions When It Comes to Recycling

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Universal health care is a buzzword. So is Medicare for All. What about Recycling That’s Not Complicated? Maybe there’s a better way to put it. But new research shows that nearly eight in 10 Americans believe the federal government needs to take a leadership role in tackling packaging waste, along the lines of the Apollo space project.

The group behind the research, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, calls the plan a “recycling moon shot,” which unfortunately doesn’t involve shooting recyclables to the moon for processing. The reference is to NASA’s Project Apollo in the 1960s, which put Americans on the moon and returned them safely to earth.

You may have read earlier about the association’s study on recycling contamination. Basically, what you can recycle is based on where you live and who picks up your recyclables, which leads to lots of confusion, contamination of the recycling stream with non-recyclable materials and items getting buried in landfills.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents consumer packaged goods companies P&G, Coca-Cola, Clorox, General Mills, Mondelez and PepsiCo, conducted its latest research as a follow-up to the recycling contamination study. The research used data from a survey of 2,056 U.S. adults from Oct. 2-15.

“ … Just knowing they were confused wasn’t going to accelerate needed change. We wanted to use the second study to show that, although Americans are confused about how and what to recycle, they are adamant that it’s important and worth fixing.”

Meghan Stasz, vice president of packaging and sustainability, Grocery Manufacturers Association

The new research finds that Americans consider plastic and packaging waste equal to or more critical than major issues like reversing climate change, fixing crumbling infrastructure and ensuring access to health care.

One problem, and an argument in favor of uniform, federal recycling standards is the the high number of individual programs—more than 9,800—that currently exist in the United States. Each of those programs has its own rules and policies. So while most respondents to the research (96%) say they participate in curbside recycling, “most people have no idea that recycling is different across thousands of cities and counties,” the association says in a news release.

The organization adds that creating uniform standards is the first step in creating behavior change, and 93% of Americans believe national standards will alleviate confusion.

Right now, municipalities next to each other may have different rules. In Arlington County, Virginia, for example, you can recycle pizza boxes, but in neighboring Fairfax County, you cannot. “We’d like to see a transparent system with clear rules that reduces consumer confusion and raises participation rates,” Stasz says.

It may be surprising that people actually want more government involvement when it comes to recycling.

“I think consumers believe that the recycling system in the country is broken and confusing and that the federal government has the greatest resources and reach to be able to coordinate with stakeholders across the public and private sector to fix recycling,” Stasz adds. “It was interesting to learn, for example, that 77% think that recycling is a public service, not a business.”

What would a US system cost in comparison to local programs? Aren’t there complaints about the cost and efficiency of other government programs, like Obamacare?

Association leaders say they don’t have a hard-and-fast number on the cost of implementing uniform recycling guidelines across the country. But in terms of economies of scale, a national system could help reduce costs and or make recycling profitable.

For example, a Your Bottle Means Jobs campaign in the Carolinas urges residents to put a couple more bottles in their bin each week to bring in more materials, keep recycling facilities running and create new jobs.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association will become the Consumer Brands Association in January 2020.

To spur action beyond its research, the association recently endorsed several key pieces of legislation that aim to improve recycling rates and reduce landfill waste: the Save Our Seas Act 2.0, the Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act, and the Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education (RECYCLE) Act.

What can everyday people who agree with these results do?

“Recycling is managed at the local level, so consumers can weigh in with their elected representatives, encouraging them to partner with neighboring cities and towns on waste and recycling rules, to help create economies of scale,” Stasz says.

“There are great resources available for municipalities to implement best practices in recycling, like the materials provided free of charge by the Recycling Partnership that include signs, flyers and other educational materials municipalities can use to help educate consumers on what to recycle and how.”

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